Thursday, June 12, 2008

So, why the hell do you want to get married?

This is the question that I've been asking myself. For years. A decade or more, really. And it's not only me asking it; it's former boyfriends asking it, it's friends asking it. I've been asked it several times since I've gotten engaged, due to the company I keep. It's such a valid question that I've actually started polling people. For those that know about my engagement, I ask for an honest opinion on it (and usually get one). For those that don't know, I ask for a general opinion on the entire concept and get the can of worms cracked open, and then show them the ring. Usually they backpedal, until I explain that I really am looking for truthful feedback and open discussion. It's a fun game when you hang out with a bunch of anarchists and artists and other such people engaging in non-standard lifestyles.

My answer to this question, as you may imagine, has changed fairly dramatically since I was twenty (and thank god). Back then, the reasoning was an ever so co-dependent "because that's how I'll know that he'll really stay with me" or "because that's how I'll know he really loves me", something along those lines. As if marriage is a solution to a problem, a universal Mr. Fix-It to my severe emotional disruptions and fear of abandonment. Luckily, none of the boys that I dated were foolish enough to go for it... for very long, at least.

In my mid-twenties, for a minute or two, the answer was simply, "I don't." I'd learned enough to know that I didn't want to do it the way that a lot of other people do it, and wasn't empowered enough to realize that I might be able to do it in a different way entirely.

And now? Now that I have a sparkly ring on my finger? Now that I've put a deposit down on a gorgeous venue and I'm scouting out dresses and caterers, not to mention trying to figure out how mortgages really work? Well, now it's a much bigger answer. But it needs some backstory.

As should be evident by this point, I have a lot of issues with marriage. Similar to my take on many other subjects, my contentions range from the macro to the micro. There are the big, universal issues like the federal regulations prohibiting gay marriage and the legal ramifications on each other's finances. And then there are the superpersonal, relationship specific details like the way that many couples, and it seems to me women in particular, try to use marriage to fix whatever intimacy problems exist in a relationship. Let's examine some of these items, shall we?

The subject of the prohibition against gay marriage is one that I cannot help but consider when thinking about my own marrying possibilities. Since high school age my circle of friends and acquaintances has always contained gay people, and (as very few people are completely straight) there have been a few women have who moved through my life that drew me strongly to them, so much so that I questioned my own sexuality for a time.

More to the point, though, is that two of my very close friends are lesbians. One, we'll call her H, is my oldest friend. She revealed her sexuality to the world in her 11th grade year (my 12th) and has never looked back. And recently she's fallen madly in love, and she and her new partner want nothing more than to marry. But of course they can't. They could maybe travel to one of the states that has made it legal for a moment - I believe California is the latest? - but of what use? It wouldn't be recognized in their home. And so they're talking about having a commitment ceremony and a big party, because isn't that what a wedding really is anyway? What is all this craziness with making it a legal contract? Ahh, but we'll get to that.

The second of the two aforementioned friends, we'll call M. She has strong feelings about the concept of gay marriage, and does not want any part of it, especially not a commitment ceremony that strikes her only as a "fake wedding". To her it feels like mockery; yet it makes her sad that she will not get to experience that rite of passage, even when she is ready to commit herself to a lifelong partner. In what might be an ironic twist, I've asked M if she would like to be our officiant.

I've heard two opposing arguments on the concept of straight couples who support gay rights and what we should do with our own options. One camp declares that if we truly believe that everyone should have the right to marry and that it is unfair that this is not the case, then we should not take part in this unfair system and therefore should not become legally married until everyone has the right to do so. The other camp, upon hearing of couples who refuse to marry for the sake of gay rights, blink their eyes incredulously, shake their heads sadly, and muse on the irony: that people who have the option would turn it down, while so many who want it so badly can't do something so basic as commit themselves to one another (at least, not in the eyes of the law).

And there it is: in the eyes of the law. What is that? "We love each other - legally! And our sex is legal too!" How perverse is that? The thing is that it isn't really like that at all. In reality, the legal aspect of marriage has nothing to do with the relationship itself. It has to do with agreeing to let that person all up in your junk... in a paperwork kind of sense. Marrying legally intertwines your finances, lets you get on each other's insurance and file taxes or apply for a mortgage jointly, and allows for visitation in medical emergencies - that last one is a big part of why the legal aspect becomes important for gay couples.

So when you think about it, a legal marriage is merely two adults agreeing to open their files to each other. A scary proposition, no doubt - if things go awry, you can end up liable for debt that you didn't even know your partner was accruing. But it has nothing to do with romantic love; it has to do with trust and fiscal responsibility, an important but quite different part of the whole. Oddly, this is the part that many couples seem to gloss over entirely, focusing instead on some ludicrous notion that "love is all you need". Oh, if only.

Other issues? Well, let's talk about the wedding ceremony, shall we? Enter guests. Representatives of the two families sit on opposite sides of the room, a throwback to days when this would not be a friendly or happy gathering but when they'd rather be at each other's throats. Enter the groom: he who has the most money wins. Enter the groomsmen, who originally played the role of literally holding back the "bride's" family as the groom kidnapped her from her house. Enter the bridesmaids, who originally were dressed up like the bride in order to confuse evil spirits, and who are now mostly just puppets in expensive, ugly dresses that will never be worn again.

And now enter the bride. Or at least we assume it's the bride; she's lost any identity that she may have once had now that she's wearing that white dress with that veil over her face. Good thing she's wearing white, too, or we wouldn't know how rich and privileged she is. She is of course being escorted by her father, the man that owns her, so that she can be properly handed to her groom, the man that is purchasing her. After all, this is really just an exchange of property - and that property damn well better be a virgin too. Because later they'll have to hang out the sheets with the bloodstains on them, and if they don't, well, she might just get herself stoned to death for being a whore. But first get that wedding ring on her - they won't actually let you put a tag in her ear, and tattooing "mine" on her forehead would probably make her less valuable. Oh, the groom? Why would he wear a ring?

How wonderful! How romantic! Boy, do I want in on that! Um, no. Granted, I'm taking the worst of a bad lot, but my point is that wedding "traditions" don't come from a warm fuzzy place. We made all that up later, when society decided that we'd better start pretending that women are actually people. (By the way, we're not all the way there yet.)

This is why I have a mini panic attack every time I try to think about my ceremony. There are a lot of "standard" things that I don't want involved. No one is giving me to anyone, because I'm actually not property. Vows obviously need serious work from the traditional script (must I even bring up that whole "obey" shtick?). Past that, I just have no idea how I'm going to handle it yet. Thankfully, I have time.

So, under all of these dark and foreboding clouds, why the hell do I want to get married? As I said, that answer is complex, but it's all rooted in one very simple fact: I have found my partner, and he his, and we want to celebrate our partnership with each other and everyone we love and make our commitment formal.

Do I want everyone to have the same rights? Of course. But giving up our opportunity will not create one for anyone else. Can I abide the dogma of the wedding ceremony as it is commonly carried out here and now in this country? No, and I don't have to, and I won't. Do I think that a legal marriage makes us legally bound to love each other? No, I think it makes us legally able to file joint tax returns. Am I wandering into marriage with naive notions that getting married will be the ultimate solution to all of the problems in our relationship, and indeed in my life? To the contrary, I'm making every effort to walk into it in full consciousness of the potential pitfalls and failures, willing to take the risks, confident that we will keep loving each other and acting as equal parts of a whole as much as we are able.

Sound scary as shit? Well yeah, it is. So was moving to New York, and so was starting college, and so was everything else worthwhile that I've ever done.

When you realize that your ceremony can be what you want it to be, and decide that you will make it represent only what you believe; when you understand that a marriage is not a "marriage", something that fits in a box that someone else put a label on, but simply a partnership between yourself and the person that you know and love, and it is nothing less or more than what you decide it will be, then all of those dark clouds part. And nothing that society says about what a "wife" is or a "husband" is matters anymore. The things that your parents did to each other within their own marriage melt away. Because none of that has anything to do with you and your partner.

The day after you say "I do" (or "I will" or "Yes!" or "Hell yeah!" or "Totally"), you will still be the same two people that you are today, and you will still have the same relationship that you do now. That moment is not the one at which you devote yourselves to each other forever; that devotion should have long been in place. The wedding is had simply to state it out loud... where a whole lot of people can hear you. Because it's a wonderful thing to feel and say and share. If you make it legal, you make it legal for practical reasons, and you can do it at the same time or not.

A few nights ago I asked an acquaintance, who happens to be gay, what she thought of my engagement. After some discussion of above-mentioned subjects, she said she thought it was courageous. I have to agree. This is one of the most terrifying things I've ever done. And yet, somehow, I've never been so happy, and really, I've never been so calm.

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